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Georgia Court of Appeals affirms judgment in nursing home wrongful death case

Posted by John Hadden | Oct 11, 2019 | 0 Comments

On October 10, 2019, Atlanta personal injury lawyer John Hadden, in conjunction with co-counsel Ken Connor, Caleb Connor, and Bret Moore, obtained a favorable opinion in the Georgia Court of Appeals for the family of a 71-year-old nursing home resident in south Georgia. The appeals court upheld the final judgment of approximately $1.5 million against Lowndes County Health Services, LLC, an entity affiliated with PruittHealth (sometimes referred to as "Pruitt Health") that operated a nursing home in Valdosta, Georgia, known as Heritage Healthcare at Holly Hill. The original verdict exceeded $7.5 million but was reduced due to apportionment to non-parties not in the case at trial. PruittHealth operates dozens of nursing home and related health care facilities across the State of Georgia.

As noted in the Court of Appeals decision, late on the evening of October 25, 2012, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) working at Holly Hill noted brown vomit a patient's clothing, and determined that the patient's stomach was slightly distended (swollen). After further examination, the LPN called a physician's assistant to express her concerns. The assistant advised the LPN not to send the patient to the hospital, but instead ordered a blood test, abdominal x-ray, and nausea medication. At the time the LPN raised concerns, the nursing home had no registered nurse (RN) on duty as it was a late-night shift. 

When the LPN's duty ended early the following morning, she notified incoming staff, including an RN acting as the nursing home's assistant director of nursing, about the patient's condition. Despite the prior orders of the physician's assistant earlier in the shift, the x-ray ordered for the patient was not completed until just before 10:00 the next morning. Around 11:00 am that day, the patient was transported by ambulance to the emergency room at South Georgia Medical Center. Unfortunately, he died around 5:30 that day, less than 24 hours after the LPN originally noted problems, of complications connected with aspirating fecal material, which, as the Court of Appeals noted, was a risk associated with bowel obstructions.

The Court of Appeals decision contains further details about the case.

The patient's family and estate then filed suit for wrongful death and other claims. Following a jury trial in the State Court of Lowndes County in January 2018, the jury returned a verdict, and the court entered final judgment, against the operator of the nursing home, which was upheld on appeal in this case. The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected the defendant's claim that the trial judge erroneously denied its "Batson Challenge" due to the plaintiffs' striking of a white juror about whom little information was known. It also rejected the nursing home's claim that the trial court erroneously allowed claims of ordinary negligence, as opposed to professional negligence, to be considered by the jury. Finally, the appeals court also upheld the jury's apportionment to others aside from the nursing home, and trial judge's resulting reduction of damages, which the patient's family and the estate had contended were improper. The nursing home has now filed a petition for certiorari seeking to have the Georgia Supreme Court review the decision of the Court of Appeals.

The case is Lowndes County Health Services, LLC, v. Copeland, Georgia Court of Appeals Case Nos. A19A1552, A19A1553 (October 10, 2019)

About the Author

John Hadden

John D. Hadden is the owner and founder of the Hadden Law Firm. An experienced trial and appellate lawyer, he is author of three respected treatises on Georgia litigation practice: Greens Georgia Law of Evidence, Georgia Law of Torts - Trial Preparation and Practice, and Georgia Magistrate Court...

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